Thailand Travel for First-Timers
This Thailand guide will help you prepare for your first visit to the Land of Smiles.
by Mike Henderson, CEO of B.A.G. Travel · Sun 12 Feb 2023
What Makes Thailand Special?
Thailand is one of the most beloved countries and has a special place among the hearts and minds of travelers worldwide. Because of its centralized location in the Southeast Asian region, dynamic culture, and diverse landscape, Thailand has a bit of everything for everyone. In 'The Land of Smiles,' you can expect warm tropical weather, fantastic cuisine, exciting culture, and friendly people. Now, let's get you ready for an unforgettable adventure with this Thailand travel guide for first-timers.
Where Are the Best Places to Visit in Thailand?
The best things to see and do in Thailand are wide-ranging, and you'll be entertained no matter where you go. Chiang Mai vs. Bangkok? Phuket vs. Pattaya? These are all among Thailand's most popular tourist spots and, not surprisingly - host the best locations for activities and entertainment.
The best places to visit in Thailand will vary per traveler, but favorite lists often include:
Best things to do in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the cultural hub of northern Thailand and the second-largest city in the country. It's loved by many travelers for its smaller size (compared to Bangkok), nearby mountains, delicious northern Thai food, and rich Lanna heritage. Chiang Mai is an "all-in-one-place" with a great mix of culture, city life, and outdoor activities. Some activities worth considering include:
Visiting some of Thailand's incredible temples can be a breathtaking experience. Specifically, if you are nearby, see Wat Phra Sing, Chedi Luang, Doi Suthep, and the Twin Pagodas at the mountaintop Doi Inthanon National Park - "The Roof of Thailand" (shown in the photo above).
Take a trip to Doi Inthanon (Thailand's highest peak) and enjoy getting out of the city. Chiang Mai has a big hiking community if you want to meet up for a walk in the hills.
Experience Lanna Culture
Enjoy a traditional northern Thai Khantoke dinner and musical performance. In addition, the region offers many excellent and affordable "dinner and show" options that provide a slightly more unique experience not found in central and southern Thailand.
Best Things to Do in Bangkok
Bangkok is a major global city, so travelers can expect everything that a vast modern city should be and then some. Bangkok is also a foodie paradise and sensory extravaganza! It's a fast-paced environment, but on the other hand, there is an extensive choice of fun vacation memories to collect. Consider these activities:
Do a Bangkok Street Food Tour
Experience Bangkok for foodies and taste why so many people consider Bangkok one of the world's foodie capitals. Formal street food tours are a great way to get a broad sample of local food and multitask with your lunch or dinner for the day.
Take a River Cruise along The Chao Phraya
Take a cruise on the Chao Phraya River at night and enjoy seeing the city lights. Particularly nice is taking a river dinner cruise with someone special.
Bangkok for The Adrenaline Addicts
If you're brave, try the MahaNakhon Skywalk. Not for the faint-hearted, the observation deck is 314 meters up!
Bangkok has all the big city attractions necessary to keep you entertained. Unsurprisingly, most travelers typically begin their Thailand vacation here before exploring the other regions. In fact, Bangkok has consistently been ranked among the greatest travel cities in the world for years, and when you visit, it will be easy to see why!
Best Things to Do in Phuket
Phuket is the largest and most famous island in Thailand. A top-rated destination for both families and those wanting a party, sun, and sand! Phuket is known for having a great range of hotels, resorts, and water-based activities for any crowd. It's got some of the best beaches in Thailand, great food, and clubs/bars if you want a party, BUT it also allows for time to unwind. Here are some activities in Phuket to consider:
Explore Phang Nga Bay on a Kayak or Tour Boat
Phang Nga Bay is an amazing site to see and gorgeously lush (it's perhaps the single most-beautiful spot in all of Thailand). When in Phuket, DO NOT miss a chance to go kayaking or boating through the enormous sea caves!
Snorkeling in Phang-Nga Bay
Phuket has some excellent snorkeling activities that are both affordable and enjoyable. The great thing about this activity is that you're experiencing marine life in its natural habitat.
Best Things to Do in Pattaya
Pattaya is one of Thailand's most popular tourist cities - just south of Bangkok and is well-known for its enjoyable nightlife scene. Pattaya is also a great seaside location with a superb beach. Of course, you can also expect incredible seafood in Pattaya.
Best Things to Do in Koh Samui
Travelers and publications often cite Koh Samui as the best island in Thailand. It's an island paradise you won't want to miss! Expect lots of incredible seafood dishes in Koh Samui and some genuinely unbelievable sunsets! Locals in Koh Samui have a very laid-back vibe. For somewhere not so "touristy," take some time to explore the provinces and cities of eastern Thailand.
Boating Around Koh Phi Phi Leh
Consider taking a boat tour across the waves to the nearby island of Koh Phi Phi Leh. Stunningly beautiful beaches and clear blue water await you here on one of the most famous islands in the world. You may recognize the incredible scenery filmed here from The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Samui Elephant Jungle Sanctuary provides a compassionate environment for the elephants and is supported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Best Animal Welfare Award winner) and Asian Captive Elephant Standards. EJS is an excellent option if you want a great place to see Asian elephants up close and in a more natural and sustainable environment.
Things to Know About Animal Tourism:
Animal tourist attractions should be approached with caution. In recent years, mindsets have begun to change, and steps have been taken to reduce unsustainable commercial aspects and highlight eco-tourism. Not that long ago, elephant riding was on seemingly every traveler's to-do list; now, but has justifiably become less popular.
Tigers, monkeys, elephants, and many more animals were the subject of mass tourism. This involved these amazing creatures performing in ways that aren't natural. So it's worthwhile and responsible to research the types of animal tourism organizations you visit and what your money could be funding.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Thailand?
The best time of year to visit Thailand depends on what you want to experience.
In Thailand, there's a Season for Everyone.
November, December, and January are often the best times to visit Thailand since temperatures are a little cooler, and there's less chance of rain.
- In November, you'll also have the chance to see two of the biggest festivals in Thailand: Yee Peng (sky-floating lanterns) and Loy Krathong (lanterns floating on the water).
- April is often the hottest month in Thailand, but it's also when you can experience the Thai New Year: Songkran. Seemingly in response to the often stuffy heat of the season, Songkran is THE world's biggest water fight and not to be missed.
- In northern Thailand seasons – the burning season is in full swing from February to April, and it might be worthwhile to avoid the north if you can in favor of the southern islands. However, if you are a determined traveler looking for natural beauty and bargains, this can be a great time to experience much of what Northern Thailand offers.
- The wet season in Thailand is a great time to visit as tourist numbers drop a little bit, and believe it or not - there are still more than hot enough, sunny days in the wet season to enjoy your holiday.
Tips for Saving Money on your Thailand Trip
The amount of money you need to bring to Thailand is relevant to how long you plan on staying and what you want to experience. Despite its popularity, Thailand is a relatively affordable place to visit. Even during the high travel season, people love going to Thailand for a vacation because they know their money will go far. Be considerate of where you travel and what you want to do. If you're trying to get the best bang for your souvenir buck, consider visiting northern or eastern Thailand. Many travelers choose to spend more time in Chiang Mai over Bangkok because most things cost less.
How to Make Your Money Last on Your Thailand Trip:
- Eat as locally as possible.
- Avoid western food if you can.
- Always pay with cash.
- Travel with a friend.
- Experience Free events and festivals.
- Refill water at water dispensers.
- Don't buy the first thing you see.
- Try using a fan instead of an air conditioner.
- Haggle, but don't overdo it.
Where to Find Cheap Food in Thailand
Eating Thai food is the most cost-effective option and is healthy and delicious. Budget a minimum of USD 15 per day for three decent meals.
In Thailand, you can expect to find a massive variety of food to eat and many different places to buy it. Local markets are prevalent, and many locals often eat Thai food at street food stalls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Check out our "Thailand for Foodies" guide to dive deeper into this world-renowned foodie pool.
Low-Cost Accommodations in Thailand
Finding cheap places to stay in Thailand is easy and stress-free. The country has a wide variety of affordable places to stay, regardless of where you go. Due to demand, you will have a better chance of finding cheaper places to stay in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok or Koh Samui - but that may be an opportunity to use the savings to reward yourself with a nice little 'splurge budget.'
The cheapest places to stay for the younger crowd would be backpacker hostels, which can be found for as little as USD 2 per night - including breakfast. Oh, yes...you read that correctly. Thailand is one of the world's top global travel destinations due to the overall outstanding balance of price and quality. Affordable accommodations are widely available, and you can get very nice rooms and cheap places to stay. In addition, Thailand has a wealth of hospitality choices to suit any budget.
How to Get Around Thailand Cheaply
There are various ways to get around in Thailand, no matter where you go. You may want to budget for USD 10 daily, but this depends on where you are, where you want to go, and how you want to get there.
- Songthaew - The songthaew is basically a pickup truck with covered seating at the back. This is a widespread way that locals tend to get around. However, you need to know your destination and expect to negotiate as this is not a metered service.
- Tuktuk - The Tuk Tuk is a famous vehicle to get around in Thailand. It's a three-wheeled motorbike with open-air seats. Think of it as an evolved, motorized rickshaw. Same as with the Songthaew - be ready to negotiate a fee to reach your destination.
- Scooter - To get around in Thailand, many people hire a scooter. In particular, they are very popular with travelers to the islands.
- Car - A car is still a great way to get around Thailand. Specifically, hiring a car can be cost-effective if you plan on staying somewhere for more than a few days.
- Bus - The bus is a common way to travel around the country, for example, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.
- Train - Taking a train is a beautiful scenic experience, and Thailand has an extensive rail network. Bangkok has an excellent BTS and MTR system in place.
- Flying - Flights are a good way of long-distance travel in Thailand; you can get one-way flights from Chiang Mai to Bangkok for as little as USD 25.
- Ride-Share - Grab is the most popular ride-hailing service in Thailand. Very similar to Uber. Downloading the Grab Super App (iOS or Android) to your smartphone when traveling in Thailand is highly recommended.
Do's and Don'ts of Thailand Travel
Like other Asian countries, Thailand is still reasonably conservative and has many social and religious customs you should know before going there. We've put together two simple lists to help keep you prevent some awkward situations:
Thailand Travel for First-Timers - Things to DO:
- Do take your shoes off before entering a home or business. If you see shoes sitting at the front door, take a hint.
- Do give and receive money using both hands. It can be perceived as rude to use one hand as it's abrupt.
- Do give tips to anybody who has provided you with good service. Thailand is a cash economy, and tipping is very customary.
- Do always have your passport and insurance documents with you.
- Do expect dual pricing (Thai/Foreigner) at many places.
- Do always be polite and use good manners.
- Do learn some of the local language and gestures. This will help you along the way and be respected as a knowledgeable tourist.
Thailand Travel for First-Timers - Things to NOT Do:
- Do Not be confrontational towards Thai people. This is a major embarrassment and disrespect for them. Like in many countries, saving face is important in Thai culture.
- Do Not raise your voice to Thai people, like previously mentioned. It's not likely to do you any favors.
- Do Not expect credit cards to be accepted everywhere, so it's wise to always have enough cash on you for your daily outings.
- Do Not publicly criticize the Thai monarchy or government. For the most part, Thais hold deep appreciation and respect for them.
- Do Not be overzealous with haggling.
- Do Not touch people's heads. The head is considered sacred. If you do need to touch someone’s head, first ask permission.
- Do Not point your toes at monks or anyone else. In fact, do not use your feet to do things other than walking.
Thailand Travel for First-Timers
Thailand is among the best Asian countries to visit because of its central location, tolerant society, and affordable travel. Travelers around the world love visiting Thailand, and there always seems to be too little time to discover it all. As long as this info on money-saving tips, cultural do's and don'ts, festivals, and places to visit are packed along with the luggage...Thailand travel for first-timers can be a (tropical) breeze!
Psst!... Did you know there is also a must-see, bucket list place to check out "next-door" during your Thailand visit?
It's The Legendary Angkor Wat Archeological Park in Cambodia
One of the most famous places to visit in the region is Angkor Wat Archeological Park - near Siem Reap, Cambodia - a UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite common perception, the iconic Angkor Wat Temple itself is actually one of many incredible temples within AWAP - the world's largest temple complex. Angkor is a bucket-list destination with innovative architecture, sculptures, and carvings that absolutely must be seen in person to believe! Several of these fantastic structures were re-popularized with the masses through such blockbuster films as Tomb Raider and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Getting to Angkor Wat is a simple direct flight from Bangkok's Don Mueang airport. It's only a 1-hour flight; flights can be as cheap as USD 72.
While in Siem Reap, Cambodia, spend some time learning about the tragic history and how Cambodia is working hard to create a better future. Be sure to check out these: five museums while in town.
Ready for your Thailand Adventure?
Check out B.A.G. Travel's posted global tour events, or contact us for a customized group tour.